TORONTO — In the immediate aftermath of Kevin Durant’s devastating Achilles’ injury, suffered during Monday’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals, questions abounded. How healthy, exactly, was the Golden State Warriors’ star forward when he returned from a calf injury? Should he have been medically cleared to return after more than a month off? Was his decision to come back influenced by mounting criticism during his absence? Which human impulse drove some Toronto Raptors fans to cheer as he crumpled to the court?
As the dust slowly began to settle Tuesday, a bigger-picture question emerged — one that will shape this summer and the NBA’s championship landscape for years to come. Which teams, and which star players, can afford to wait on Durant’s return to health?
This is a question that touches nearly every corner of the league, as Durant has been linked in rumors to the Warriors, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets and mentioned in potential team-up scenarios with the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis. How and where those players align this summer will directly shape the 2020 playing field.
The fear Tuesday was that Durant had suffered an Achilles’ tear, an injury with a typical recovery time of nine to 12 months that could knock him out for the entire 2019-20 season. Often, NBA players require an additional season after their rehabilitation period to fully recover — and some never do. Complicating matters, of course, is Durant’s pending contract negotiations: The two-time Finals MVP can turn down a $31.5 million option for next season and become an unrestricted free agent June 30.
Durant’s career ceiling exceeds every active player besides James. With perfect health and a desire to continue playing deep into his 30s, the D.C. area native had the potential to be a top-three all-time scorer, a top-five all-time player and to exceed James in titles and Finals MVPs.
His obscene scoring talent, robotic consistency and unguardable frame produced four scoring titles during his Oklahoma City Thunder days, and an offseason move to become the undisputed face of a new team could have led to even more.
Those theoretical accomplishments, benchmarks and honors can no longer be assumed. Durant now bears the injured athlete’s haunting burden: proving himself all over again.
While one school of thought might argue that Durant should opt in for the final year of his Warriors deal, take a rehab year and reenter free agency next summer, doing so could expose him to serious financial risk if he were to re-injure himself. Another course of action would be to use his significant leverage as one of the league’s top talents to secure a long-term maximum salary commitment that would protect him in the event of a major setback. Per league rules, the Warriors can offer Durant a five-year contract worth more than $220 million. All other suitors can offer four-year pacts worth more than $160 million.
People in the league familiar with the situation indicated Tuesday that multiple teams continue to view Durant as worthy of a max contract, even though he suffered a potentially career-altering injury and could miss next season. Indeed, most of Durant’s suitors have good reason to wait for his return to health.
The Warriors, for one, must pay up to keep all-star guard Klay Thompson this summer. With major commitments to both Stephen Curry and Thompson on the books, NBA salary cap rules will severely limit Golden State’s ability to attract and compensate outside talent. That will leave Warriors management with a simple question: Does the team have a realistic chance of landing a player comparable to Durant with scant cap flexibility and few expendable trade assets? The answer there is almost certainly no, theoretically increasing Golden State’s interest in taking their best shot while Durant recovers and re-emerging as a title favorite once he returns.
The Knicks, long viewed as the favorites to pry Durant away from the Bay Area, have gone to such drastic lengths to set the table for him that they are likely pot-committed. New York traded away Kristaps Porzingis, the young face of the franchise, and stripped its roster bare during an all-out tank. If it signed Durant this summer, the team would be free to tank again next year to add another top draft asset in hopes of vaulting toward contender status for the 2020-21 season. While New York might draw some media heat for such a radical approach, there would be clear logic to the maneuver and a potentially massive payoff.
As for the Clippers, their focus this year has been wooing the Raptors’ Leonard home to Southern California. Durant’s injury shouldn’t change that in the slightest, although they had the ability to clear room for two max players and could have sold both Leonard and Durant on a team-up approach. If Leonard were to stay in Toronto, the Clippers would be wise to welcome Durant with open arms and spend next year tinkering with their deep and talented roster to construct ideal lineups around him. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer is dead-set on winning titles, lavishing his organization with millions of dollars of staffing and infrastructure upgrades, and waiting a year for a player with Durant’s transformational talent would be a small price to pay comparatively.
The plot thickens, though, when it comes to the other superstar free agents who will factor heavily into this summer’s blockbuster moves. For years, the NBA has been known as a superstar’s league — and teams are only going to greater lengths to accommodate their top players. But just as superstars can hand-pick their destinations, they can also afford to be selective when it comes to their fellow core members.
A healthy Durant is a dream teammate for a superstar, a two-way player with championship experience whose game fits in virtually any style of play and with any group of teammates. But a recovering Durant is a different proposition, especially in a climate where superstars are subject to annual reappraisals.
Take Irving, the mercurial point guard who badly disappointed observers during the Boston Celtics’ second-round exit. He’s been linked as a possible Durant partner in New York for months, but Monday’s injury tests that bond. Would Irving be willing to endure a season in Durant-prompted purgatory, or would he prefer to be the face of the Nets and try to attract another star to Brooklyn?
Similarly, Davis and James must turn the page after dispiriting lottery trips. After spending a season waiting on a trade request that has yet to be fulfilled, should anyone really expect Davis to be patient? The clock is ticking on the 34-year-old James, too, and the Lakers have displayed outlandish urgency in recent months given president Magic Johnson’s departure and coach Luke Walton’s exit. James and Durant have shared an immense mutual respect for years, but James needs to win immediately or risk a further slide out of the NBA’s center stage.
Durant’s injury, therefore, is a reminder that superstars aren’t exempt from the perilous and unforgiving sides of professional sports. The NBA machine waits for no man, and his potential running mates would be acting rationally if they opted to pursue Durant-free alternatives this summer.
While Durant should still have good options, he was in position to have his cake and eat it, too, by handpicking a destination and shopping through a list of high-profile co-stars. That might no longer be the case.